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Wind power: Clean energy, dirty business?

for The Christian Science Monitor

MEXICO CITY

Like the oil drilling rig that became an icon of the Industrial Age, the giant, spinning wind turbinehas become a global image of clean power.

No longer a futuristic dream of environmentalists, wind power has become a big business: Since the signing of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change in 1998, wind-generated electricity has grown 20-fold: from only enough to power the equivalent of two New York Cities, to 200,000 megawatts today – enough to power six Britains. (In an address Thursday about “American energy,” linking clean energy to economic and national security, President Obama said that his administration would allow the development of green energy such as wind and solar on enough public lands to power 3 million homes.)

Wind’s biggest impact may be in the developing world – indeed, according to the Global Wind Energy Consortium, 2011 was the first year the developing world installed more wind power facilities than the developed world. India is now fifth in wind power production. China, the global wind leader, installed more wind power in 2009 than existed on the planet prior to 2003. Morocco recently finished its first wind farm (200 megawatts) and, with plans to grow its capacity 10-fold by 2020, expects to export electricity to Europe.

For all the hope that wind energy offers a world eager to move away from costlier, more environmentally disruptive forms of electric power production, the industry is barreling into some of the same controversies and conflicts that its predecessors in natural resource exploitation faced, particularly in the developing world.

On one hand, says Paul Veers, chief engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory: “The wind business is doing something no new electricity source has done in almost half a century – it’s beginning to make an impact.”

On the other hand, says Dan Kammen, a University of California, Berkeley, renewable energy scholar working on leave at the World Bank: “The conflicts that come up [with wind] are exactly the same ones that come up in basically every other land-based activity. We have done this in the past over Manifest Destiny and national security. The issue of the moment happens to be green energy, but there has been a history of this.”

Towering turbines, often with blades as long as 30 yards, are installed in huge groups – wind farms – and require large tracts of land. Acquisition of that land has been a sometimes violent flash point in the new “wind rush,” as explained in detail in the accompanying Monitor case study of Mexico‘s wind-rich Isthmus of Tehuantapec.

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